Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The End of Work-Life Balance in Modern Academia

English: An artist's depiction of the rat race...
The rat race in reference to work-life balance (Wikipedia)
by Marcel Hofeditz:

Among the 20-30 colleagues I already dared to ask this bothering question: what will you do after your Phd?

I only know of one who might consider to continue his career within the academic world.

There are numerous reasons that I heard why an academic career isn't worth the effort.

The top three are: (1) job insecurity, (2) low income and (3) dislike of the publish or perish system.

Reasons that nobody mentions but I perceive as relevant are (1) fear of talking to large crowds, (2) doubts regarding own writing skills, (3) lack of creativity or imagination and, finally, (4) the stress of not having a simple work-life balance.

Thomas Roulet (one of the top 10 Twitter professors out there) just asked me to write about the latter, about the balance of work and life in academia, because it's such an important subject that is poorly documented and most often misunderstood.

Indeed, most people don't care because professors have "the best job in the world". This statement runs in complete opposite to the increasing number of burn-outs of professors and doctoral students today.

In the following, I will try to explain you why there is no such thing as work-life balance in the academic world and why integrating your job in your life is becoming part of being a modern academic.

Work-life is no valid concept

The word "work-life" as a construct describing the idea of how to harmonize work time and free time suggests that you have either time to live or to work. It is no big thing to explain a six year old that life and work cannot be separated.

Distinguishing between life and work would mean that your work is not part of your life. That's not only wrong, but also makes no sense.

Your work is a major part of your life, if you want it or not. It may be or become a central source of joy and happiness if you devote yourself to it and reward yourself.

It means to balance the time you spend doing your hobbies, meeting with friends, talking to your wife, arguing with your mom and improving on your work status, that's what we mean actually with juggling the things that we care about.

There is no "balance" in academia

You have got 30,000+ days to live on average and you distribute this time following your individual goal of self-fulfillment investing your devotion and energy the best way you can.

This may include teaching from 10 to 12 am, going to the doctor at 2 pm, writing your mails on the way with public transport to the doctor, calling a friend you want to invite as a guest speaker to your class, deciding to take a D-tour because you want to stroll in a near park that may provide you with the right mood to think about your next big research project.

There is so much going on between your daily routines of teaching and writing that enters your personal life. Your daily routine is basically having no routine. Therefore, in academia, there is no balance, everything is socially mixed-up and your profession is entering your personal life and vice versa your personal life is entering your profession.

Your wife may be your best friendly reviewer and your most important colleagues may even become your friends. They are your peers of your field and it is genuine to admire their fearless devotion to the same thing. In the end, in academia the exchange between your peers is your research output (ideally speaking).

You may simply have nothing to balance, because it means to separate privacy and work, which is becoming more and more difficult. Instead the integration could become a huge opportunity or a requirement depending on your institution and your desire to succeed.

You as a person of progressing knowledge may have to become a public figure if you want to not only sell your ideas but yourself as a person which are both mutually connected. The modern academic requires you to become a part of the public society. In this case, it's hard to tell what to balance if it's all mixed up.

Instead, a modern academic should devote his energy in framing certain times (e.g. 5am to 8am writing time) and spaces (in the home office) to define what your job is and what not. It also requires you to have strong communication skills to explain these times and spaces to the near and important persons around you.

The only limit is your imagination

Your intrinsic motivation that drives you as a researcher has no week ends. Your task of knowledge progress is not extrinsically motivated. You are doing it or at least you ultimately think you are doing it for the greater good. There is often no payment linked to your job success and if so you may not like it.

Being productive does not only mean to work consistently. In academia, it mostly means to think all the time and to write it down. There are no borders that may limit you. There is nothing that make you stop to think. The only limit is your imagination. You are an entrepreneur of knowledge and as such your capital is your time and skill.

With such a freedom comes an increased stress of self-determination but also self-management that is hard to handle particularly for those being new to the academic world.

If you go for a "normal" job,  you may receive a huge list of possibilities that the company will offer to guarantee a balance of life and work. If you go for an academic job, it is you who carries this list.

It's hard to follow your own goals and rules but if you succeed in doing so, you may have what we call a "rich" life with a diversified experience and a satisfying feeling of success that no other job may be able to provide.

I think that being a modern academic is a difficult job, maybe one of the most difficult jobs out there, which is why it is important to have the best people for this task. If you read the list of reasons above that my colleagues mentioned, most of the things may be solved by improving the scholarly environment.

Society needs to give back and provide doctoral students and professors with the skills, knowledge and competence to being able to address what is required when being a modern academic. I am curious what you think. What's your image of the modern academic? What do you think is their responsibility in a connected world?

What Do Professors Do All Day?

Research being carried out at the Microscopy l...
Microscopy Research (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)
by Lisa Wade, PhD, Sociological Images:

Anthropologist John Ziker decided to try to find out.

With his collaborators - Matt Genuchi, Kathryn Demps, and David-Nolin Ziker recruited a non-random sample of 16 professors at Boise State University and scheduled interviews with them every other day for 14 days.

In each interview, they reported how they spent their time the previous day. In total, he collected data for 166 days. It’s a small, non-random sample at just one university, but here’s what he discovered.

All ranks worked over 40 hours a week (average of 61 hours/week) and all ranks put in a substantial number of hours over the weekends:


Professors, then, worked 51 hours during the official workweek and then, in addition, put in ten hours over the weekend.

What were they doing those days? Research, teaching, and service are the three pillars of an academic workload and they dominated professors’ time.

They used weekends, in particular, to catch up on the first two. The suspension of the business of the university over the weekend gave them a chance to do the other two big parts of their job.


This chart breaks down the proportion of time they spend on different activities more clearly. Ziker is surprised by the amount of time faculty spend in meetings and I’m particularly impressed by the amount of time they spend on email. Most professors will probably note, with chagrin, the little bars for primary research and manuscript writing.


Interesting stuff.

This was just a first phase, so we can look forward to more data in the future. In the meantime, I’ll add this data to my preferred answer when asked what I do all day:


Cross-posted at Business Insider, Pacific Standard, Networked Scholar, and the Huffington Post.
Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Reflecting on PhD Learning

English: A seminar at the Institute of Histori...
Seminar - Institute of Historical Research (Photo: Wikipedia)
by , Patter:

Some supervisors ask the doctoral researchers they work with to formally reflect on their learning.

A what-am-I-learning conversation might be a regular part of supervision.

Reflection is also often self-initiated - ongoing thoughts are recorded in a doctoral researcher journal or a blog.

University initiated ‘skills audits’ and the use of researcher development frameworks also require the doctoral researcher to step back and assess what they know, and what they still need/want to know.

Reflecting on learning is sometimes formally required as the final act in the thesis - the conclusion to the concluding chapter becomes a look-back at new understandings generated from the doctoral experience.

And some examiners like a little learning-focused reflection too. There might very well be a question in the viva which requires the candidate to share what they’ve learnt about research and about being a researcher.

The request and expectation for reflection doesn’t happen consistently across disciplines, or even commonly within a single discipline. But the concern with doctoral learning does seem to be more usual in some areas than in others.

Not surprisingly, the what-have-you-learnt question is quite likely to appear in education, where critically reflecting-on-learning is a major preoccupation of the field. Educators believe, and I’m one of them, that explicit and critical reflection actually consolidates and extends the learning. In the case of the thesis, a meta-reflection at the end can be seen as a further act of researcher formation.

But the inconsistency of supervisor and examiner requests to discuss doctoral learning does mean that the advice - about what exactly might count as an end-of-doctoral learning reflection in the thesis and what to do about it - is a bit thin on the ground. That’s probably why I’ve just been asked for a few hints. So here goes …

To begin with, it’s worth considering what supervisors and examiners don’t want to see in any thesis-based meta-reflection on your doctoral learning. They don’t want you to rehash what you’ve already said earlier in the thesis. They don’t expect to see the results of your research again, nor do they want a repeat of basic research methods literatures and what you did in training courses. They don’t want a protracted self-indulgent ramble about ‘the journey’. They don’t want a lapse into a moan about how hard it all was.

Supervisors/examiners do expect that you will have learnt something by doing your own project, something more than was available to you in the research methods courses you did and the books you read. They do therefore expect to see something which indicates your current thinking about the conduct of research and/or about the research enterprise itself.

Of course, any reflection on learning is going to be idiosyncratic and particular. It’s not going to be the same from one doctoral researcher to another. A reflection on doctoral learning will be tied to the specific project, process and person. It must however be directed to the new knowledge that has been gained about research itself. So, please take the following suggestions with the very strong caveat that you need to make them your own.

Here’s five starting points for an end-of-thesis (or viva) refection on learning:
  • a short narrative about your initial expectations of the research process, what actually happened and what this means for the way you will conduct any future research. This might for example not only cover particular ethics, access or analytic issues that were not dealt with in the relevant section of the thesis, but also the implications that this new knowledge has for you as a researcher.
  • a succinct discussion which compares an aspect or aspects of the research methods literatures with what actually happened. Many doctoral researchers talk about the particularities of the messy research reality compared to how neat and tidy it appears in the books- this is not a general discussion but is specific to the research - and implications for the newly-minted Doctor are spelled out.
  • a comparison of some initial aspirations for the thesis and what actually happened at the end (this is what I did in my own thesis where I discussed the relative strengths of arts-informed approaches and more conventional social science. I then argued for their complementarity in relation to my topic. This analysis was something I could only have arrived at by actually writing the thesis).
  • a brief narrative about the complexities of developing a researcher identity - maybe that was a major issue resolved through the research and thesis writing process, via the text work/identity work* involved.
  • some thinking about an aspect of the research process of interest to others, maybe something that could form the basis of a future journal paper. So for instance - and I’m just making these up, these are simply examples not things you should copy - you might think you have acquired some new insights into insider research, the temporal issues involved in working as a researcher in a site with different paces and pressures, working with vulnerable populations, or the importance of a particular form of note-taking. If you think that this insight might be of interest to others, it’s worth looking at the methods journals. That will help you frame up a more substantive end-of-thesis reflection as a dry-run at a contribution to writings about the doctoral research process itself.
Well that’s a beginning on the topic. Are there other starting points that you can think of that might be helpful to those who have been asked to add a reflection-on-learning to end of their thesis?

Note: * Text work/identity work is extensively discussed in Kamler B and Thomson P (2014) Helping doctoral students write: pedagogies for supervision. Second Edition, London: Routledge

2014, the Year That Was: Education

(Photo: AAP)
by Alexandra Hansen, The Conversation

While 2013 was all about schools and their funding (remember Gonski, anyone?), 2014 was the year of higher education reform. Or, at least, proposed higher education “reform”.

With cuts to higher education funding and the prospect of fee deregulation being some of the most maligned aspects of the May federal budget, it was surprising that as much attention was being paid to Australia’s institutes of higher learning as is usually paid to our schools, hospitals and transport.

Most vice-chancellors, albeit a few glaring exceptions, were in support of fee deregulation. They argued that the current funding system of unlimited student places (which was reviewed in April and found to be a keeper) and decreasing government support was unsustainable and universities needed to be set free.

However, many of our experts feared Australia’s politicians were unaware of the drastic effect this could have on our world-class system of higher education, and especially access to it for all groups of Australian society.

After months of debate, negotiation and much hand-wringing, the Senate finally voted down the bill in parliament’s last sitting week, only to have the bill’s champion, Education Minister Christopher Pyne, reintroduce it the very next day.

So, is another tumultuous year on the horizon in higher education? We’ll have to wait and see.

The debate separated university staff from their leaders and prestigious universities from middle-tier ones. There was never a question that the prestigious Group of Eight would have more pricing power in a market system. One of our most-read pieces of 2014 outlined the worth of attending an elite university, which research found results in a slight salary increase across a lifetime.

Paying for education was an important focus this year. We closely examined private schooling and whether the cost pays off. We found public school kids do better at university than private school kids with the same tertiary entrance score, and post-university employment prospects and wages were much the same.

We didn’t only look at public and private schools, though. There’s been an increased interest in doing education differently, so we looked at alternative forms of education and options outside of public, private and Catholic schools.

Steiner, Montessori, and Democratic schools are on the rise, and we looked at how these work in our alternative schooling series.

While thinking about different ways of doing things, our authors challenged what we thought we knew works in education. Misty Adoniou asked if we should scrap homework altogether, and Rebecca English asked if parents should stop punishing and rewarding their kids, and instead teach them to be good just for the sake of it.

The biggest news in schools this year was the government-commissioned review into the national curriculum. The review was just as controversial in its recommendations to have more of a focus on Australia’s “Judeo-Christian” heritage as it was for its appointments. However, we’re yet to see changes actually reach our classrooms, and could be waiting for a while.

You guys sure do like spelling, or at least reading about it. Shutterstock

What you seemed to enjoy the most though was looking at language: spelling, grammar, Aussie slang, annoying misuses in English, Americanisms, and whether your kids were using language in the way they should and at the right ages.

You also enjoyed our series on bullying in schools, including what is actually bullying and what is just the argy bargy of everyday life. Our exam guide, which led up to end of year final exams, let you know how to study, what to eat, and how to support loved ones during this stressful time.
But in case you missed them, here were our top five education stories for the year:
  1. Why some kids can’t spell and why spelling tests won’t help
  2. State school kids do better at uni
  3. Private schooling has little long term pay off
  4. ‘Gentle parenting’ explainer: no rewards, no punishments, no misbehaving kids
  5. How to tell if your child has a speech or language impairment
And finally, we realise the education section has bombarded you with close-ups of this man all year. So here we pay homage to that with a few of our favourites. We’ve called it “The Many Faces of Pyne”:

The Many Faces of Pyne AAP images

The Conversation
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

How to Write a PhD Thesis and Get a Job at the Same Time

How To Write A Thesisby Dora Farkas, Ph.D., Founder of and creator of the Finish Your Thesis Program, Cheeky Scientist:

“I wished I never would have gone to grad school.”

I just passed my qualifying exams and Jess, a student in her 6th year, and I were cleaning out the -80C freezer.

I nearly dropped the box of dry ice filled with valuable samples on the floor. “What do you mean?” I asked. “You mean you don’t know what has been happening around here?” Jess said. I thought I was on top of all the grad school gossip but had no clue what she was talking about. Jess sighed.

“There are no jobs. All of us who are defending this year are looking for jobs, but it’s just impossible to get one unless you have industry experience or know someone. If I had known how tough it would be to get a job, I would have just left with my Masters. It was a total mistake to come to grad school.”

I was thinking about Jess’ story for the rest of the afternoon. I had just passed a 7 hour written exam and an oral exam and I wondered whether I should just quit and get my Masters (as some of my classmates had done) or stay on course and complete my PhD.

Suddenly I realized I had no idea what my career options would be after graduate school. I assumed that with all of the biotechs springing up in the Boston, I’d just be swept up after getting my one-of-a-kind PhD degree. 

Things Happen Slow, Then Fast

After months of job searching, Jess learned about an opportunity in the most unexpected place - a coffee shop where she ran into an alumna from her department. Jess’s friend was working for a start-up that needed some help. Next thing I knew, Jess got the interview and was offered a high-level position before even finishing her thesis.

Jess’ success encouraged me to continue pursuing my PhD. Her success also made me realize that I could not just hide in my lab until my thesis was done and expect to get hired the day after I defended.

While it was way too soon to actually start applying for PhD jobs (although a 2-year PhD sounds great in theory), I decided to at least start attending networking events to find out what was out there in the real world.

Writing A PhD Thesis

6 Reasons To Start Networking Now

Just like Jess, most graduate students focus so much on their thesis research that when they get close to graduation they realize that they have - no professional network, few marketable skills, and no plan for career advancement.

This last one is particularly important because even if they get a interview, one of the most likely questions will be: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” It’s nearly impossible to answer this question unless you have explored different careers through networking and have given some thought to which path would suit your skills and personality best.

What is your excuse for not networking?

I don’t have time to network
I don’t know how to start a conversation
I should finish my thesis first
I don’t know what I want yet
I don’t feel comfortable “selling” myself (my resume will speak for itself)
I feel bad about wasting other people’s time (I’m just a student after all)

Networking is indispensable if you want a job. Your industry resume will not speak for itself. Neither will a cover letter no matter how well it is written. If you apply to a job through the Internet, your application will be buried in a pile on the desk of a hiring manager who needs to review hundreds of applications in addition to their full-time day job.

The only way to get an industry job is to start networking. The key is you have to start networking while you’re finishing your thesis, not after you finish it. There’s an unexpected benefit to this - networking will help you finish your thesis faster. Here why:

1. Learning about exciting career opportunities will give you the motivation you need to finish your thesis.
2. Talking to professionals about the big picture of your research (which is easy to forget in the day-to-day busyness of graduate school) will help broaden your perspective.
3. You will learn what marketable skills employers are looking for, and you can tailor your thesis so you pick up these specific skills. It is not enough to be smart anymore. Employers are looking for people with very specific technical backgrounds.
4. Talking to professionals in your field might give you ideas (in the form of references or other contacts) on how to solve technical problems in your thesis.
5. Professionals are always happy to share their experiences about graduate school and to give you great advice on both writing your thesis and dealing with difficult advisors and thesis committee members.
6. There might be opportunities for collaborations with industry that could lead to extra funding, expanding your network, and learning about industry work environments. 

The Industry Secret All PhD Students Should Know

After working in industry for several years, I can let you in on a little secret: “Employers are just as desperate to get the right person for an open position, as candidates are to get a job.”

By the time a position is advertised, the hiring manager is overwhelmed with work and they need someone yesterday in order to meet a deadline or a company quota. Instead of feeling bashful about talking to professionals, think about it as “giving them an opportunity” to learn about what expertise you would bring to their company.

While they might not have a position for you at the moment, if you can show what value you would provide for their company (in terms of saving time or money in the process of bringing a product of service to the market) they will keep you in mind for future positions, or refer you to a colleague who might be hiring. 

Networking Is A Two-Way Street

The first step to learning how to network is learning how to add value to other people. Networking is a two-way street - you need to be willing to offer help to your professional contacts as well. “But how can I help them, if I am just a student or postdoc?,” you might ask.

First, if you are not the right candidate for their company, they might ask you if you would be willing to put them in contact with someone (such as a fellow graduate student or postdoc) with the right background.

Or, they might have a technical question for you. This would be the perfect opportunity to showcase your technical expertise. If you don’t have an answer at that moment, you can research it later and send them an answer along with a thank-you card.

Finally, in a year or two when you are employed, your contact might reach out to you, because they are looking to advance their careers. Whether or not your company is hiring someone with their background, be willing to offer your help by referring them to one of your colleagues or put them in touch with a recruiter. You never know how quickly the tables might turn. 

How To Write A PhD Thesis

10 Strategies To Put Your Thesis And Career On The Fast Track 

Many PhD students struggle with getting interviews simply because they cannot articulate through their resumes and cover letters the value that they would bring to a company. 

If you refuse to actively explore career opportunities in graduate school, it will be very tough to market yourself well during your job search. This is because you will not have a good understanding of what companies are looking for.

Given that it takes 6-12 months to find a PhD level position (even longer if you have no professional network), the time to start exploring career paths is now. The following 10 strategies will help you complete your research and plan for your career at the same time:

1. Have a crystal clear vision of the purpose of your thesis

What is the big picture of your research, how does it advance your field of study, and how does it support your career development? Even if you don’t have the details of your thesis proposal in place, at least be clear on the general problems you are trying to solve in your thesis. Be sure that your thesis research will help you acquire transferable skills sets and expertise.

2. Network as much as possible

Do you think it is too early to start networking as a first or second year student? It is actually great to network when you are not looking for a job, so you can show genuine interest in what others are doing without looking like you are desperate for a job. This will give you the opportunity to learn about career paths and start expanding your professional network.

3. Follow-up with key professionals

If you are diligent about networking, you will meet hundreds of professionals. You don’t need to send holiday cards to all of them. However, there will be a few people who are easy to talk to and their backgrounds are similar to yours. Keep in touch with these professionals, as they might be valuable resources when you are close to graduating

4. Take people out for coffee

Some may say “no”, but those who say “yes” will have great job searching advice and could even refer you to other professionals in the industry. Be sure to send hand-written thank you cards to all professionals who meet with you in person.

5. Connect with alumni

Learn about the career paths they are on, what their lifestyles are like, and what skill sets are necessary for their jobs. Some alumni can also help you to resolve specific technical problems, and even interpersonal issues with your supervisor and committee members.

6. Write out your 1, 3, 5 year plan starting now

Some students are reluctant to make plans because research is unpredictable. However, you need to have at least a preliminary plan with milestones. Update your plan regularly (at least every 1-2 months) or after you reach a significant milestone. This will help you to discuss requirements for graduation with your supervisor, and also help you to plan for additional skill sets or expertise you want to pick up prior to graduation.

7. Evaluate which parts of research you enjoy doing on a daily basis

Many students define their career paths in terms of a job title or financial compensation. The truth is that a desired “job title” does not necessarily lead to job satisfaction. If you enjoy labwork, apply for jobs where you will be working at the bench.

If you like writing, apply for positions where writing will be one of your primary responsibilities. A “Senior Scientist” position in one company might translate to 90% labwork and 10% report writing, and just the opposite in another company. As you explore different career paths and companies, find out what the daily responsibilities are for each position to be sure that they are a good match for your talents and interest.

8. Look for external collaborations

Expand your network in any way you can–every additional person you know in your field, knows hundreds of other people that they could put you in contact with down the road (e.g. 3 years from now they might work at the company you are applying to and can forward your resume or CV to the hiring manager). In addition to expanding your network, collaborations also diversify your skills set, and give you experience in working with teams–a great asset in an industry environment.

9. Engage in Linkedin group discussions

Linkedin is a fantastic resource to grow your professional network if you are a student, and you have few opportunities to meet professionals in person. All students should build a detailed Linkedin profile and include all honors and publications.

Professional discussion groups in your field are a great opportunity to learn what the “hot” areas of research are and what career paths people with your background tend to follow. Discussion groups also give you the opportunity to ask technical questions,and contribute to discussions which will improve your credibility as an “expert” in your field.

10. See graduate school challenges as growth opportunities

Are you struggling with an impossible academic advisor or a really challenging project? Some students use up a lot of their energy trying to resolve conflicts with their supervisors or worrying about running into dead-end projects. There seems to be an unspoken belief among graduate students that once you “survive” graduate school, life becomes easier.

There might be some truth to this, as you won’t have the pressure of having to complete a thesis weighing down on you. However, your boss in industry might be a more difficult person than your thesis advisor, and they might even have higher expectations from you. 

In addition, you might need to work with other difficult people, who procrastinate, or are hostile, and sometimes you will need to depend on their work to meet your own deadlines. It is a scary feeling when you paycheck and livelihood depend on the performance of other people.

The most successful graduate students are those who learn to “reframe” these frustrating people and events into learning opportunities. If you refer to your advisor as the “gatekeeper” standing between you and your degree, you’re going to be unhappy. However, if you view this experience as a chance to learn how to communicate with your future bosses, you will be much happier.

Likewise, your thesis might be that “100+ page paper standing between you and your degree” or it can be a chance to show everyone how much you know, or a chance to learn how to write better (which will come in very handy when applying to industry jobs), or it can be a talking point to bring up at your next networking event. The choice is up to you. 

About Dora Farkas, Ph.D.

Dora Farkas, Ph.D received her PhD from MIT and has extensive experience in the pharmaceutical industry. Dora is a thesis and career coach for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, Founder of, a site that has helped thousands of students and postdoctoral worldwide, and creator of the “Finish Your Thesis Program.”

Click here to get a copy of Dora’s FREE report “Secrets to Success in Graduate School”, which includes expert productivity tips that over 200 students have used to advance their careers.

Anti-Intellectualism is Taking Over the USA

English: Isabel Allende, Chilean novelist, tal...
Isabel Allende's books have been banned (Photo: Wikipedia)
by , The Guardian:

The rise in academic book bannings and firings is compounded by the US's growing disregard for scholarship itself. 

Recently, I found out that my work is mentioned in a book that has been banned, in effect, from the schools in Tucson, Arizona.

The anti-ethnic studies law passed by the state prohibits teachings that "promote the overthrow of the United States government," "promote resentment toward a race or class of people," "are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group," and/or "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals."

I invite you to read the book in question, titled Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, so that you can decide for yourselves whether it qualifies.

In fact, I invite you to take on as your summer reading the astonishingly lengthy list of books that have been removed from the Tucson public school system as part of this wholesale elimination of the Mexican-American studies curriculum.

The authors and editors include Isabel Allende, Junot Díaz, Jonathan Kozol, Rudolfo Anaya, bell hooks, Sandra Cisneros, James Baldwin, Howard Zinn, Rodolfo Acuña, Ronald Takaki, Jerome Skolnick and Gloria Anzaldúa. Even Thoreau's Civil Disobedience and Shakespeare's The Tempest received the hatchet.

Trying to explain what was offensive enough to warrant killing the entire curriculum and firing its director, Tucson school board member Michael Hicks stated rather proudly that he was not actually familiar with the curriculum.

"I chose not to go to any of their classes," he told Al Madrigal on The Daily Show. "Why even go?" In the same interview, he referred to Rosa Parks as "Rosa Clark."

The situation in Arizona is not an isolated phenomenon. There has been an unfortunate uptick in academic book bannings and firings, made worse by a nationwide disparagement of teachers, teachers' unions and scholarship itself.

Brooke Harris, a teacher at Michigan's Pontiac Academy for Excellence, was summarily fired after asking permission to let her students conduct a fundraiser for Trayvon Martin's family.

Working at a charter school, Harris was an at-will employee, and so the superintendent needed little justification for sacking her. According to Harris, "I was told … that I'm being paid to teach, not to be an activist."

It is perhaps not accidental that Harris worked in the schools of Pontiac, a city in which nearly every public institution has been taken over by cost-cutting executives working under "emergency manager" contracts. There the value of education is measured in purely econometric terms, reduced to a "product," calculated in "opportunity costs."

The law has taken some startling turns as well. In 2010, the sixth circuit upheld the firing of high school teacher Shelley Evans-Marshall when parents complained about an assignment in which she had asked her students in an upper-level language arts class to look at the American Library Association's list of "100 most frequently challenged books" and write an essay about censorship.

The complaint against her centered on three specific texts: Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (she was also alleged, years earlier, to have shown students a PG-13 version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet).

The court found that the content of Evans-Marshall's teachings concerned matters "of political, social or other concern to the community" and that her interest in free expression outweighed certain other interests belonging to the school "as an employer." But, fatally, the court concluded that "government employees … are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes."

While the sixth circuit allowed that Evans-Marshall may have been treated "shabbily", it still maintained (quoting from another opinion) that "when a teacher teaches, 'the school system does not "regulate" [that] speech as much as it hires that speech. Expression is a teacher's stock in trade, the commodity she sells to her employer in exchange for a salary.'" Thus, the court concluded, it is the "educational institution that has a right to academic freedom, not the individual teacher."

There are a number of factors at play in the current rash of controversies. One is a rather stunning sense of privilege, the confident sense of superiority that allows someone to pass sweeping judgment on a body of work without having done any study at all.

After the Chronicle of Higher Education published an item highlighting the dissertations of five young PhD candidates in African-American studies at Northwestern University, Chronicle blogger Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote that the mere titles of the dissertations were sufficient cause to eliminate all black studies classes.

Riley hadn't read the dissertations; they're not even published yet. When questioned about this, she argued that as "a journalist … it is not my job to read entire dissertations before I write a 500-word piece about them," adding: "there are not enough hours in the day or money in the world to get me to read a dissertation on historical black midwifery."

Riley tried to justify her view with a cliched, culture-wars-style plaint about the humanities and higher education: "Such is the state of academic research these days … the publication topics become more and more irrelevant and partisan. No-one reads them." This is not mere arrogance; it is the same cocooned "white ghetto" narrow-mindedness that allows someone like Michael Hicks to be in charge of a major American school system yet not know "Rosa Clark's" correct name.

Happily, there is pushback occurring against such anti-intellectualism. One of the most vibrant examples is a protest group called Librotraficante, or Book Trafficker.

Organised by Tony Diaz, a Houston Community College professor, the group has been caravanning throughout the south-west holding readings, setting up book clubs, establishing "underground libraries," and dispensing donated copies of the books that have been removed from Arizona's public school curriculum. You can donate by visiting

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Grades are Arbitrary, Learning is Not

Betonwerksteinskulptur "Lehrer-Student&qu...
'Lehrer-Student' von Reinhard Schmidt, Rostock (Wikipedia)
by Trent M Kays, Minnesota Daily:

As the semester comes to a close at the University of Minnesota, many students are concerned with what grade they will receive in their courses.

When I was an undergraduate student, I had a lot of the same concerns. I wanted to be sure that I got an A in all my courses because once you get an A, it seems as if you must get that grade every time.

Unfortunately, the worrying that came with this reasoning resulted in high stress and anguish, and it does the same to many other students.

Grades are an odd social construct. They are meant to transmit your level of expertise in course material to the world outside of school. They serve as gatekeepers for those who fall below a certain grade point average.

But instead, grades hardly transmit expertise because most universities have different ways of understanding them. A C+ grade at one university will be a B- at another. This becomes problematic quickly.

If you get a B in ancient Greek history or astronomy, what does that mean? It doesn’t really mean anything. It’s arbitrary. It’s an indicator telling the university that you are ready to move on to the next class in whatever course sequence you’re in. It tells the university whether or not you need to be put on probation or kicked out to make room for other students. That’s it.

For many students, especially undergraduates, grades are a validation. Students crave them because it’s like a pat on the back for doing good work. Students often want validation from their teachers because that seems to be the only way to know if they are doing well or not.

However, this creates a problem. Instead of trying to master the knowledge of the course, students master how to please their teacher. This issue is troublesome because college is one of the few times in a student’s life where he or she can openly challenge something.

College is one of the few safe spaces for students to explore ideas and concepts they might be uncomfortable with. Mastering how to please a teacher - in other words, your audience - is a good skill, and it will probably serve students well outside of college. However, that skill can’t be the only thing they learn in school, and that’s far from the point of a college education.

As a teacher, I’ve always had difficulty assigning grades in my courses. Not because I can’t or don’t know how to, but because grading, as it’s currently understood, is something I don’t believe in.

It’s a flawed system that teaches students to only do the minimum to get a certain grade. It doesn’t encourage sustained inquiry or passion, and it sets up students to be in two groups: A-grade students and everyone else.

Despite my issues with the current grading system in higher education, I still have to assign grades. My role as a teacher in my current university environment dictates it. So, reluctantly, I assign grades every semester to students. Some students complain and fight about their grades and some do not.

Honestly, I’m more concerned about the students who don’t fight their grades because it’s reminiscent of the passivity universities seem to create in students. Many students just seem to accept their grades without comment or criticism. Either they know that’s the grade they deserve, or they just don’t care as long as they pass the class.

I think in most cases, students fall into the latter category. This isn’t to say instructors graded the work incorrectly, whatever that means. It’s likely that the grade assigned comes from the totaled points the student received for the course.

But what many instructors want is for their students to make an argument for a higher grade, even if it’s an unsuccessful argument. When students make an argument to their teachers for a higher grade, it at least shows that the students are engaged.

Students and teachers should be more concerned with learning than grade assigning. At the graduate levels, this is generally more the case; however, it’s still not so at the undergraduate level.

If students focused on learning and exploring their courses rather than what grade they’re trying to get, then perhaps classes would be more engaging and fun. Most teachers do not like grading. It’s a drag. They’d rather be teaching and helping students critique, question and succeed. That’s what teaching is about.

For students, grades are the currency of the University. Good grades let you take classes you really want to take, and bad grades let you take classes you’re not interested in or repeat classes you don’t care about.

Moreover, the University needs grades and grade point averages because it lets others know how good their students are, which factors into many things like funding and rankings. Yet, students and teachers hold the power of grades because grades only mean something if the culture where the grade was created says it means something. That’s a powerful place for students and teachers to be.

The truth is that once you leave the University, five years from now, no one will care that you got a B in your ancient Greek history course. No one.

What ultimately matters is that you graduated with a degree, and for most people, that’s enough. They don’t care about your B grade, and students shouldn’t care about their B grade either.

As a teacher, I want to know if students were challenged and learned something. Not if they didn’t get enough points to get an A.

The Key to a Successful PhD Thesis? Write in Your Own Voice

But what I was creating was more like an extensive, impressive research report, rather than a thesis of my own.

The word “thesis” comes from the Greek tithenai, which literally means “to place” or “to position”: my thesis is my position, my point of view, my stance on a certain issue. If I am not able to convey what that is in my writing, then I am no longer writing my own thesis, I am writing the theses of the giants who have gone before me without adding anything to them. 

Confidence is essential

Particularly in fields such as law, the humanities and some of the social sciences, where research is not necessarily a matter of gathering data or conducting experiments, but rather of gathering positions, and conducting thought experiments, it can be harder to make a distinction between our use of existing knowledge and our own original contribution that builds on that knowledge.

Without sufficient research or evidence, the claims and arguments we make may come across as naïve or ill-founded. Yet without the confidence to step out beyond the safety of endless footnotes and the words and voices of big-name scholars, we risk not reaching the level of academic independence that doing a PhD requires of us.

The great challenge in the final phase of a project that has consumed my thinking for the past few years is: how do I find my own voice in all of it? How do I find the academic self-confidence to really give a voice to my own thesis, my own position and stance? And indeed, how did the giants of my field become the authoritative voices that we all cite? By developing their own voice. 

To defend our claims, we have to find our own voice

Somehow translating this to my own academic writing proved to be just as much of a challenge. The moment at which we are asked to defend our thesis in front of a committee of professors, to defend our arguments and claims, is the moment at which we literally must find our voice and express it confidently.

The award of the doctorate degree, and the title Dr, is a symbolic recognition of our full membership in the academic community. In order to rise to that challenge, it is necessary to find your voice in your writing, to formulate your own position, your own thesis, which you are capable of - and confident in - defending.

My colleague had given me the key to a door that opened before me in the last throes of writing and editing. These final weeks have become really enjoyable, even with the pressure of the final deadline getting closer and closer, because I have given myself full permission to articulate my own thesis, my own position, my own voice.

And the final result is a manuscript that is truly mine, and a piece I feel worthy of submitting as I ask for admission into the academic community as a fully-fledged, independent member. A member who has a voice of her own.

Cassandra Steer is a lecturer and PhD candidate at the faculty of law, Universiteit van Amsterdam.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Mastering Your PhD: Getting the Most Out of Progress Reviews

Die Wertlehre bei Marx und Lassalle, doctoral ...
PhD - Tatiana Grigorovici (1877-1952) (Wikipedia)
by Bart Noordam and Patricia Gosling, Science Careers: 

You will meet with your supervisor from time to time to present data, exchange ideas, and discuss failures and possible solutions for moving forward with your thesis research.

These regular discussions are key to your success as a PhD student. Below we provide tips and tricks to ensure you get the most out of these meetings.

Be prepared

Some supervisors are easygoing and will regularly check in with you to ask how things are coming along. You probably wouldn't even think of such an encounter as a progress review. Other supervisors are more organized and want to discuss progress in scheduled meetings.

Finally, there is the hands-off supervisor who believes that you should figure it all out for yourself; only if you push hard will this type of supervisor be able to discuss your achievements and how you should move forward.

Irrespective of which type of supervisor you have - whether they're formal or not - you should prepare for these meetings. As a rule of thumb, your preparation time should be about as long as the meeting itself.

Start by thinking about what you want to get out of the meeting and writing down your current challenges. Perhaps your samples aren't as good as you had hoped, and you need guidance on what to do next.

Maybe you need feedback on an abstract you've prepared for an upcoming meeting, or you gave your supervisor a manuscript to review weeks ago and haven't seen it since. It is unlikely that you will be able to solve all these problems in a single meeting, so prioritize those that your supervisor will be able to help you with.

Pick, at most, three topics you want to discuss at the meeting and be clear about the type of solution you want. For instance, bring up the manuscript that is still on your supervisor's desk. Aim to set a date for a meeting to discuss the manuscript (thereby implying that your supervisor will have looked at it by then). You might even want to bring a list of these discussion points to the meeting.

Stick to your plan

During the meeting, the conversation may stray in various directions or grind to a halt when your supervisor gets a phone call. Whatever happens, remember what was on your agenda and bring those issues forward again. As you gain experience, you will find the right balance between flexibility and focus. This is a skill that will be valuable throughout your career.

Have your data ready in a presentable format

Progress reviews are not just about showing and discussing data. But, since you are doing a research project, the content - whether it's data, computer code, or the like - will play an important role in your progress review. So make sure you have the data available. Bring it to the meeting in a form that works well in discussions with your supervisor.

For example, bring printouts so you or your supervisor can make notes on them. Make sure you've done the right analyses and calculations. It's a good strategic move to start the discussion with a discussion of your positive progress, such as results of a new analysis, not with problems or frustrations.

Hone your to-do list

In discussions such as progress reviews, we tend to focus on activities that we feel we need to do but that aren't going that well. We ask for more attention, a quicker response, better equipment, more conference visits, and so on. It is important to express your needs but ensure that you also pay attention to two other categories of activities.

First, to accomplish more of the things on your to-do list, make sure there is also a stop-doing list. Discuss with your supervisor the activities you want to spend less time on, and why. For instance, coordinating the weekly group meetings has been a good experience, but now that you are wrapping up your thesis it might be time for someone else to take over this task.

Second, confirm what's working well. Note the activities that you want to continue doing. Praise your supervisors for contributions you've found helpful. For instance, if your supervisor returns a manuscript to you promptly, let her know you appreciate that. Everybody likes a compliment, including supervisors.

Building rapport

Progress reviews are serious business, but there's more going on in these meetings than the agenda. Another objective is to build rapport with your adviser. Allow time for some informal chitchat. Depending on your relationship, a bit of humor can make the discussion more relaxed.

Handling unexpected criticism

You go into the meeting well prepared, anticipating a fruitful outcome. Then your supervisor starts haranguing you and listing all kinds of things that have gone wrong.

Most of the accusations are new, or they've never been mentioned in such an explicit way before. It is clear that your supervisor is not a great communicator, but that is of little help now.

It's likely that your supervisor has saved up these criticisms for an occasion like this meeting, determined to vent them all at once, even if they're no longer relevant. You start to argue. Your supervisor is not in the mood to argue and hardly listens. The list of complaints grows longer.

Here is a survival strategy. First, forget your agenda. It's unlikely that you'll make progress on the points you planned to discuss once the meeting takes such a negative turn. Second, listen, don't argue, then summarize the accusations and repeat them back. This demonstrates that you're taking them seriously. Finally, try to set up a new meeting to deal with the lists of complaints.

Emotions are running too high to allow you to transform complaints into actionable solutions right away. Take the haranguing seriously but remember that, following the tirade, your supervisor may feel relieved. From his perspective the air has been cleared and your collaboration has regained energy.

That one last problem

Most meetings, however, go more smoothly. You make it through your agenda and everything on your agenda has been discussed. But there's one more issue that you want to raise but are afraid to ask, so you put it off to the end.

Bringing up a major concern at the end of a meeting is not the best or most effective method, but at least you had the guts to do it. Next time, deal with the important stuff earlier, even if it's awkward and unpleasant.

Make an actionable plan

Here's something that happens often, but you should do your best to avoid it: You walk out of the meeting thinking it was fruitful only to realize later that little progress was made in creating practical solutions.

The two of you agreed that you should spend more time getting better samples - but what should you do tomorrow morning? Keep the discussion focused on solid, achievable action points. You may have to adjust them later, but defining an actionable plan is the next essential step toward success.

Value these moments of interaction with your supervisor. They may be chaotic, infrequent, interrupted by others, and sometimes a little more critical than you would wish. But if you are well-prepared, those meetings will make a magnificent contribution to achieving your main goal, the completion of your Ph.D.

Patricia Gosling and Bart Noordam are the authors of Mastering Your Ph.D.: Survival and Success in the Doctoral Years and Beyond (Springer, 2006).

Gosling is a senior medical writer at Novartis Vaccines & Diagnostics in Germany and also works as a freelance science writer. Noordam is a professor of physics at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and director of a Regional Audit Organization. He has also worked for McKinsey and Co.

Deep Habits: Three Tips for Taming Undecidable Tasks

poincare-2-500pxby Cal Newport, Study Hacks Blog:

Deciding the Undecidable

In a recent blog post I introduced the notion of undecidable tasks - a particularly important type of work that’s not well covered by standard productivity advice.

These tasks are crucial to my job as an academic - as they are to many creative fields - so I devote a lot of attention to understanding how best to tackle them.

Today I want to share three tips along these lines that have worked well for me …

  1. Work on Undecidable Tasks Both During and Outside Work Hours. This type of task often requires a moment of inspiration where the pieces of a new approach suddenly click together. It’s useful, therefore, to not only dedicate regular workday deep work sessions toward their completion, but to also return to them, even if briefly, in unconventional settings more conducive to serendipity, such as while driving or walking the dog. I’ve found both types of thinking are necessary. A lot of intellectual progress can be made in structured sessions at the office while sometimes a hike in the woods is then needed to make use of this progress.
  2. Pursue (Exactly) Two Undecidable Tasks at a Time. Through hundreds of hours of experimentation I’ve found that having two undecidable tasks primed (see below) at a time is optimal. Two is better than one as it allows you to switch your focus if you get stuck (or fed up) with one task. But two is still small enough that your mind can keep the various pieces properly sorted and available for serendipitous reconfiguration.
  3. Undecidable Tasks Require a Decidable Priming. It’s not sufficient to have only a vague understanding of an undecidable task before you dive into solving it. You must first “prime” the problem by working out precisely: (a) what a solution would look like; (b) why standard or simple approaches fail; and (c) a sense of what type of approaches are promising and are worth exploring. This type of priming is a decidable task - something you can schedule and consistently complete in a fixed amount of time - and is something you must do before diving deeper on interesting problems. A non-primed undecidable task is merely a whiff of inspiration - not yet worthy of your limited time and attention.
The above tips have helped my work with the undecidable (i.e., my proof rate is higher when I structure my thinking in this manner).

But simple heuristics  are just scratching the surface of the fascinating - and under-discussed - intersection between undecidability and productivity.

Better understanding this type of work is something I plan to pursue in the New Year.

Monday, December 15, 2014

10 Simple Steps to Building a Reputation as a Researcher, in Your Early Career

English: A researcher at The National Archives...
A researcher at The National Archives in Kew (Wikipedia)
by MIT Libraries:

This talk was sponsored by the MIT Postdoctoral Association with support from the Office of the Vice President for Research.

In the rapidly changing world of research and scholarly communications researchers are faced with a rapidly growing range of options to publicly disseminate, review, and discuss research - options which will affect their long-term reputation.

Junior scholars must be especially thoughtful in choosing how much effort to invest in dissemination and communication, and what strategies to use.

In this talk, I briefly discuss a number of review of bibliometric and scientometric studies of quantitative research impact, a sampling of influential qualitative writings advising this area, and an environmental scan of emerging researcher profile systems.

Based on this review, and on professional experience on dozens of review panels, I suggest some steps junior researchers may consider when disseminating their research and participating in public review and discussion.

My somewhat idiosyncratic recommendations are in three categories. The tactical, strategic, and “next steps”:

Tactical Recommendations
  • Identify and use opportunities to communicate:
    • Accept invited talks, where practical
    • Announce when you will be speaking, teaching
    • Share your presentations, writings, and data
  • Create a scholarly identity
    • Obtain an ORCID, domain name, twitter handle, LinkeIn profile, Google Scholar profile
    • Create a short bio and longer CV
    • Develop a research theme, and signature idea
  • Communicate broadly
    • Publish writings as Open Access when possible
    • Publish data and software as open data and open source
    • Use social media (LinkedIN, Twitter) to announce new publications, teaching, speaking
  • Develop communications skills early
    • Take writing lessons early
    • Take public speaking lessons early
  • Monitor your impact
    • Monitor news, citation, social media metrics, and altmetrics that reflect the impact of your work
    • Keep records
    • Do this systematically, regularly, but not reactively or obsessively
  • Focus on Clarity and Significance
    • Do research that is important to you and that you think is important to the world
    • When writing about your research, work to maximize clarity – including in abstracts, titles, and citations
  • Give credit generously
    • Cite software you use
    • Cite data on which your analyses rely
    • Don’t be afraid to cite your own work
    • Discuss authorship early, and document contributions publicly
Unordered Strategic Recommendations
  • Do research that is important to you and that you think is important to the world
  • Manage your research program - find a core theme, a signature idea, and regularly review comparative strengths, comparative weaknesses, timely opportunities and future threats
  • Collaborate with people you respect, and like working with, start with small steps
  • Take a positive and sustained interest in the work and career of others, this is the foundation of professional networking
  • Make a moderate, but systematic effort to understand and monitor the institutions within which your work is embedded.
  • Identify your core strengths. Build a career around those.
  • Identify the weaknesses that are continual stumbling blocks. Make them good enough.
  • Pay attention to your world: exercise, sleep, diet, stress, relationships
  • Don’t manage your time - manage your life: know your values, choose your priorities, monitor your progress
  • Align your career with your core values
Ten Things to try right now …

Identify yourself 
1.  Register for an ORCID identifier
2. Register for information hubs: LinkedIN, Slideshare, and a domain name of your own
3. Register for Twitter

Describe yourself … write these and post to your LinkedIN and ORCID Profiles
4. Write and share a 1-paragraph bio
5. Describe your research program in 2 paragraph
6. Create a CV

Share …
7. Share (on Twitter & LinkedIN) news about something you did or published; an upcoming event in which you will participate; interesting news  and publications in your field
8.  Make writing; data; publication; software available as Open Access (through your institutional repository, SlideShare, Dataverse, FigShare)

Monitor… check and record these things regularly, but not too frequently (once a month) - and no need to react or adjust immediately
9. Set up tracking of your citations, mentions, and topics you are interested in using  Google scholar and  Google alert,
10. Find your Klout score, H-index.

In the full presentation, I show how to gather impact data, review findings from bibliometric research on how to increase impact by choosing titles, venues, and the like; and consider the advice for success given by the scores of books I’ve scanned on this topic.

The full presentation is available here:

Private Colleges Risk ‘Tarnishing the Reputation’ of the UK Higher Education System

by , Schools Improvement Net: 

The Telegraph is reporting that the head of the universities watchdog has warned a rapid expansion in the number of students enrolled at private colleges risks “tarnishing the reputation” of the higher education system …

Sharp increases in enrolments combined with high drop-out rates is resulting in a “waste of public money” at some institutions, said Christopher Banks, chairman of the Quality Assurance Agency.

He announced a toughening up of the vetting process for colleges which could include more rigorous checks every 12 months and a closer investigation into attendance records.

The comments were made after auditors warned earlier this month that students from EU countries including Romania and Bulgaria had falsely claimed more than £5 million from the public purse to study at “alternative” higher education providers.

The National Audit Office said half of EU students applying for support over a nine-month period were potentially ineligible for the money.

It found drop-out rates for full-time students at private colleges were three times higher than mainstream universities and a fifth of students were not even properly registered on courses.
In his first interview since taking over at the watchdog, Mr Banks said it was “time to get a grip” on the problem …

“Making sure that only eligible students access loans is critical, as is ensuring that students with a realistic prospect of completing the course successfully should be enrolled.”

He added: “I would like to make sure we quickly respond and reinforce the need for consistent quality in higher education, because there is a danger, otherwise, that [the growth of private providers] will tarnish the reputation of the sector …”.

Are you concerned by what seems to be happening at some private higher education colleges - the implication being that places are being used as an excuse to access loans - and do you welcome the comments made here by Christopher Banks? Please let us know in the comments or via Twitter …